Views on the News

With Hurricane Gustav's Approach

August 31, 2008 1:00 PM

"Why do you sleep? Get up! Call out to your G‑d!"—Jonah 1:6.

As I write these lines, New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast are in the path of yet another monster hurricane.

I believe that the only place the Scriptures discusses a raging sea storm is in the book of Jonah, where Jonah, reluctant to carry out a mission G‑d assigned to him, flees on a boat to Tarshish. G‑d responds with a mighty storm that threatens to capsize the vessel. While the raging winds howl about, Jonah descends to the bowls of the ship, lies down and falls asleep.

The ship's captain descends to Jonah's quarters and bellows, "Why do you sleep? Get up! Call out to your G‑d! Maybe He will have mercy on us..."

Jonah admits that his actions caused the storm, "For I know that it is on my account that this mighty storm is upon you," and he suggests that he be cast into the sea. The crew follows his suggestion and the storm subsides. Jonah eventually proceeds to the city of Nineveh where he successfully completes his divine mission.

The story of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Though the obvious reason for reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur is its theme of repentance and forgiveness (see Why do we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?), allow me to suggest another explanation:

All too often while storms – whether personal or communal – rage about us, we are blissfully asleep and unaffected. We feel that circumstances are beyond our control, so why bother getting worked up?

On the holiest day of the year the Captain comes banging on the door: "Now is not the time to sleep! You have no right to remain indifferent when a storm is raging about. You can and must do something about it. Call out to your G‑d!"

This is true regarding the metaphoric storms of life, and certainly regarding the hurricane that is bearing down on our brothers and sisters in the Gulf Coast. It makes no difference whether me or you are in Gustav's trajectory. Every one of us must realize that we cannot remain impervious when a storm is swirling. Our actions and prayers can and will have an impact. Let us all increase in charity, say some extra Psalms and beseech G‑d to avert the decree.

"Maybe He will have mercy on us."

Single Issue Candidacies

August 29, 2008

Focus is usually not one of my weak points, but last night, listening to Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech, my mind repeatedly wandered to the parking situation here in New York City. Yes, the hour was late, but that was not the reason for my mind's meandering. Allow me to explain...

The parking situation in New York City is a disaster; the ratio of cars to available parking spaces is way out of whack. The shortage of parking is one of the primary reasons why I don't own a car. On those occasions when I need to borrow or rent a car, I will often spend – this is no exaggeration – up to 45 minutes circling around my house, looking for a vacant spot. The ten minute walk from home to office is a 30 minute drive—counting the time spent searching for parking.

I firmly believe that a candidate for mayor of New York who would run on a single platform, promising that he or she would alleviate the parking dilemma, would score a landslide victory. Of course the candidate would have to assure us that he would appoint a team of experts in their respective fields to oversee the administration of the city and its multifarious needs. But as opposed to the standard candidate who offers an opinion, empty promises, and a mission statement on every possible issue – and then is accountable for none – I prefer a candidate who will single-mindedly and tenaciously pursue the solutions to one, two or maximum three issues. Issues that might not be of the greatest importance, but ones, like parking, that matter to the electorate.

This would also make it very easy to assess a candidate's success when his term concludes.

Listening to last night's speech, I was reminded of countless other such speeches I've heard in the past—from candidates right, left and center. Mr. Obama, a masterful orator, was dutifully following in the footsteps of politicians and statesman who preceded him. And I'm fairly certain that John McCain's speech next week in Minnesota will be much of the same.

The speech featured promise after promise. It got to the point that I lost count of them all. Here are just some of them:

As president of the United States, Obama will:

  • Completely overhaul the corporate and income tax codes.
  • Eliminate our dependency on foreign oil in ten years and invest in clean coal, nuclear, and renewable energy sources.
  • Provide every child with a "world-class" education.
  • Set higher standards and more accountability for educators—while giving them higher salaries.
  • Arrange for affordable, accessible healthcare for every American and ensure that insurance companies don't discriminate against the sick.
  • Arrange for paid sick days for workers... Change the bankruptcy laws... Protect Social Security... "Equal pay for an equal day"... Eliminate all federal programs that no longer work...

We've heard all these promises before, and though they are laudable goals, virtually none of them panned out. I wish we had a candidate with a much "smaller" mind. A "one-track minded" candidate if you wish to call it so.

Obama said last night: "America, now is not the time for small plans." I agree. Let's have big plans, but just one or two of them. After those are resolved, we can tackle another few...

Next week we enter the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar year, a month billed by the mystics as a time of extreme Divine benevolence. During this month we take stock of the previous year, resolving to build on the year's achievements and seeking out the areas in our lives that require improvement.

If you are on the same boat as I am – or on another boat, but traversing the same raging sea that I am attempting to navigate – then there are many areas in your life that could use redressing. As we approach the task of self-improvement, resolving that next year will be so much better, holier and harmonious than the year that is quickly fading, let us steer clear from grandiose all-encompassing plans.

Let's focus on defeating one, two or three irksome habits or behaviors. Let us resolve to do one or two more mitzvot. No one ever climbed a ladder by leaping to the top. We have to take it one rung at a time.

This is a winning formula. I wouldn't be surprised if political strategists soon see this path's wisdom.

Gore and McCain Agree on One Thing

August 28, 2008

According to yesterday's New York Times, Senator John McCain has already decided on his running mate, and he's expected to reveal his choice on Friday in Dayton, Ohio. (Though I should point out that in an interview aired today, McCain claims that he still hasn't made up his mind.)

The Times further alleges that McCain's decision is known only to his small inner circle of advisers, no more than three or four people, who have refused all public discussion on the matter. But sources close to the campaign said that the top contenders are former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

(Incidentally, on MSNBC.com's political column, NBC's Deputy Political Director Mark Murray writes today: "NBC/NJ's Matthew E. Berger yesterday wondered if McCain's three-day VP swing (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) actually rules out Lieberman since he famously doesn't campaign on the Sabbath. Yet Berger notes that the McCain schedule has the campaign leaving Dayton en route to Pittsburgh by bus on Friday beginning at 2:00 p.m. It is a four-and-a-half hour drive, so they would be able to arrive in Pittsburgh before Shabbat begins at 7:38 p.m., according to chabad.org, if they leave close to on time."

It's comforting to see that NBC's staff knows the right place to find Shabbat start and end times... Maybe I should let them know that we also offer SMS notifications and we've recently added the option to download the times in iCal format.)

Two aberrations converge in the person of Joe Lieberman: a) He is an Orthodox Jew who serves as a US senator and was nominated by a major party to be the presidential running mate. Not very many Orthodox Jews are in US politics, and none have reached the level of national prominence that he has—not even close. c) I have not properly researched this, but I highly doubt that there was ever a person who ran for such a high office, and was then seriously considered for the same position on the opposing party's ticket.

And, as an Orthodox Jew, I must say that I am downright proud of Senator Lieberman. In a political culture where for the most part votes are cast based on party policy rather than personal conviction, where routinely politicians formulate their "beliefs" based on their party's interests, where more often than not an opinion is based simply on the fact that the opposing party holds otherwise—one person stands out as an impartial beacon of light.

In this week's chapter of Ethics of the Fathers (5:7) we read: "Seven qualities characterize a boor, and seven characterize a wise man. A wise man ... concedes to the truth. With the boor, the reverse of all these is the case."

Is conceding to the truth a trait of a wise person? It would follow that a person who won't admit to the truth is a liar, not a boor! In Maimonides' commentary on this passage he explains: "When [the wise man] hears the truth he will concede to it. Even if it is a matter which he can negate, argue and supply a misleading answer—he will not wish to do so." Rare is the "wise" politician who will admit to a truth irrespective of the political affiliation of the one who espoused it. That would only happen after all chances of "negating, arguing and supplying misleading answers" have been exhausted.

And ultimately, as Senator Lieberman has demonstrated, this wise path advocated by our Sages earns a person respect from all spectrums of society.

And while I can't say I agree with all of his opinions and positions, I definitely take pride in "our guy" in Washington. His honesty and integrity are a sanctification of G‑d's Name.

Poor John Edwards

August 11, 2008 1:30 PM

So they have uncovered yet another politician who has been unfaithful to his wife. Let the recriminations begin! "How could he have let us down?" "How could he have been so hypocritical—considering his statements regarding another politician in a similar situation?" "How could he have been so insensitive to his ailing wife?" "How could he have shamelessly lied to the American public?"

Interestingly, though, it seems that despite the outrage expressed by pundits and politicians, many average fellows are willing to forgive Mr. Edwards for his transgression. This past Friday I was listening to the radio as I was washing the dishes in preparation for Shabbat when the story broke—immediately the news stations dispatched reporters to the streets to gather public reaction. Most of the people expressed disappointment in Edwards' behavior, but also indicated that he is only human, like the rest of us, and humans make mistakes.

We pride ourselves in a government that is "of the people, by the people, for the people." Our elected officials are supposed to be a representative sampling of their constituents—not some sort of higher caste. Is it then fair to expect of them to be morally superior than the rest of us? And considering that, sadly, extramarital affairs are – to put it lightly – hardly a freak occurrence in American society, it's understandable why many people are willing to forgive a politician who is guilty of infidelity.

Count me in on this one. I agree with the people on the street. No, I'm not excusing him for his inexcusable behavior, but I think that Edwards – just like so many of his fellow citizens, both men and women – is a victim of a society that places him in settings and situations that are optimal breeding grounds for affairs—and at the same time expects him to be chastely faithful. Yes, Edwards is responsible for his behavior and the deserved consequences—but, please, stop painting him as the Satan incarnate! A little perspective please!

I believe all other factors combined – the loosening of moral standards and estrangement from religion included – are not as instrumental in causing the epidemic of marital infidelity as is the complete "normalization" of cross-gender relations. People are regularly placed in situations somewhat akin to placing a weight-challenged person in a home full of delicious, fattening foods, and expecting him or her to settle for the rice cakes on the bottom shelf of the pantry. I say "somewhat akin" because the craving for sweets or fatty foods is scarcely on par with the human's desire for sexual gratification. Ask Freud all about it...

If we are to stem this epidemic – and the resulting heartbreak, marital strife, high divorce rates, etc. – we must eliminate the settings that spawn such affairs.

Yes, I certainly recognize that this is the 21st century, and, for the better or for the worse, we can't eliminate inter-gender encounters. But we can greatly reduce the casual and friendly atmosphere common to these encounters. There should be a difference in the way we converse with a member of the opposite gender. Chitchatting, sarcasm, teasing, witticisms, etc.—these all create a dangerous ambiance of warmth and closeness.

Most people who have affairs didn't start out looking to be unfaithful. Rather an "innocent" warm relationship takes on a life of its own, and suddenly emotions and attraction made it extremely difficult – though never impossible – to exercise self-control. The trick is to nip these relationships in the bud, before there's a chance for warm feelings to develop.

Jewish tradition has always recognized the crucial need to prevent potentially dangerous settings. This is the reason for the rules of yichud (the rabbinic prohibition precluding a man and woman who are not married to each other from being secluded together), the reason why Jewish tradition favors separate boys and girls schools, the reason why orthodox men and women won't shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, the reason why Jewish convention frowns on inter-gender socializing, etc.

Some might think that these are draconian measures. I ask, what is the alternative? A society where John Edwards is the norm?

No Haven in Heaven

August 8, 2008

This past Tuesday, Delta Airlines announced that customers traveling throughout the continental United States will soon be offered the added convenience of broadband Wi-Fi access onboard the airline's fleet. This service will be available to customers for a minimal flat fee, and will enable travelers with Wi-Fi enabled devices, such as laptops and PDAs, to access the internet, e-mail accounts, as well as SMS texting and instant messaging services.

In times past, communication was relegated to areas equipped with a landline. Time spent traveling – whether by land or air – was personal time. I remember when cell-phones first became popular, my father – a community rabbi who's on the phone all day and night – absolutely refused to consider getting one. "My time in the car," he would say, "is the only time when I get to think undisturbed by everyone and everything!" But the wheels of progress cannot be stopped, and eventually my father succumbed and joined the rest of civilization. Before long, the only plan that met his needs was one that included unlimited minutes... I'm not sure when he gets to think these days...

As network coverage areas slowly expanded, and as cell-phones – and then laptops, BlackBerrys and Palms – became standard personal accessories, it became increasingly difficult to ignore household and business responsibilities, no matter where a person found him or herself. But airplanes remained a peaceful oasis, the final holdout. Hours spent on a plane constituted a complete break with home and work (unless you happened to be on a plane equipped with a phone, and were willing to pay $36 per minute plus a $29.99 connection fee).

Well, looks like this will be coming to an end too. There will be no escape. You will be cruising at 40,000 feet and IMing your spouse, texting your secretary, and shooting off emails to your stockbroker—all while keeping track of your favorite team's score. The heavens will no longer be a haven.

We are currently in the Hebrew month of Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples – both set ablaze on the 9th of this month – and our nation's nearly 2,000 year-long exile. Thousands of books wouldn't suffice to chronicle the suffering our people have endured during this time. As Jeremiah says (Lamentations 1:12), "Behold and see, is there any pain like my pain which has been dealt to me, with which G‑d saddened me on the day of His fierce anger?" Indeed, there is no need to burrow into our distant past. I need only speak to my grandmother – may she live and be well – who spent two years in Auschwitz; the stories she alone can recount would fill a library.

Indeed, I have vivid memories of Tisha b'Av in my father's synagogue; Holocaust survivors weeping as they read the Book of Lamentations and the elegies. They were mourning the loss of their parents and siblings, their friends and teachers.

But today many of us lead relatively happy lives. What is the meaning of Tisha b'Av for those of us lucky enough to be content with our jobs, have stable marriages, and lead relatively trouble-free lives? What if we don't feel the pain of exile? What if we happen to be on a proverbial plane soaring in a cloudless sky?

Well, now we have an answer. No matter how high we may be flying, we have no excuse to cut ourselves off from what's going on miles below. We must always maintain contact with those who aren't flying, those whose wings have been clipped by illness, a bad economy, or another misfortune—those who aren't as fortunate as we are. We must commiserate with them and, most importantly, we must always be ready to lend a helping ear and hand.

We are one nation. We mourn together. And one day very soon we will all celebrate together.

Note: Aside for commiserating with those less fortunate, in a spiritual sense, we are all equally exiled—and as such we need not look to others for a reason to lament our exiled state. For more on this idea, see Why We Mourn.

Renewable Energy is a Good Jewish Business

August 3, 2008

We are all painfully aware that oil prices have doubled over the last two years, and despite the fact that the price has recently fallen from its high of $147 a barrel, it is still at record levels. Here in the United States, the politicians have come up with all types of solutions. Some have advocated working harder to extract oil from Rocky Mountain oil shale. Others have suggested that the market be flooded with petrol from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Yet others advocate additional offshore drilling.

While many politicians are busy giving short term platitudes designed to placate the electorate, the marketplace is working on long term solutions to our crisis of oil dependency. Happily, Jewish innovators and business people are at the forefront of this effort.

Israeli Businessman Shai Agassi has created a company entitled Project Better Place which is working on an innovative model that will allow people to drive electric cars long distances without the need to stop and spend hours recharging the batteries. Agassi claims that by 2011 the infrastructure will be in place for Israelis to buy and drive only electric vehicles. There is a similar plan being rolled out by Project Better Place in Amsterdam, Portugal is set to follow suit, and is seems that the UK may also be interested in following the same model.

Also recently in the news was another prominent member of the Jewish community, former California Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, who just raised fifty million dollars for his latest renewable energy project. In addition, my friend Sam Jaffe has recently started a company that has technology with the potential to revolutionize the power of renewable energy. All of this Jewish focus on renewable energy technology is not only a great investment, it is a massive mitzvah and one of the major callings of our time.

There are two main issues at stake here, the first environmental and the second geopolitical—neither of which can be ignored and both of which are of Jewish interest.

In the story of creation the Torah alludes numerous times to the need to protect the environment. In fact there is a Midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) that may relate directly to our usage and therefore destruction of irreplaceable fossil fuel. It talks about how G‑d warned Adam, the primordial man, not to ruin or destroy the planet because it is irreplaceable. Clearly the Torah would advocate using energy that can be renewed rather than using up the earth's resources that will never grow back.

However, there is a real geo-political concern here as well. The Middle East has 54% of identified oil reserves and is therefore the biggest exporter of crude. With oil at current high prices this is bringing them trillions of dollars a year. Simply put, giving unstable regions of the world that kind of wealth is madness.

As the Middle East becomes more and more radicalized, the possibility of an oil-rich country falling into the hands of terrorists is a potential reality. With our heavy reliance on their oil for our economic stability they could easily hold Western countries hostage. As it is there is evidence that our petrol dollars end up supporting the activities of terrorists that kill innocent – primarily Israeli – men, women and children. Freeing ourselves from the grips of Middle Eastern oil is literally a matter of life and death.

The Torah says (Leviticus 19:16): "You shall not stand idly by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood." Maimonides (Laws of Murder 1:13) explains this verse to mean that one who is able to save another and does not do so is considered themselves to be murderer. Clearly we are ethically obliged to do all that is in our power to avoid a situation that will result in the further loss of life.

The only way remove the immense oil revenues unstable Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran receive is by removing oil as a source of our energy. While the politicians are "standing idly by" those such as Shai Agassi, Bob Hertzberg, Sam Jaffe and their investors who are working towards total renewable energy reliance are doing mitzvot on multiple levels.

The Talmud says (Sanhedrin 37a), "One who saves one life is considered to have saved the entire universe." Indeed the alternative energy innovators and investors are saving the universe in more ways than one.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...
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